René Descartes (1596–1650) tried to keep the details of his private life secret, including
concealing his birth date so as to avoid embarrassing speculation from contemporary as-
trologers. The son of a wealthy magistrate, he was born near La Haye, France, and raised
on his grandmother's estate. He attended college at La Fleche, a prestigious school in An-
jou run by Jesuits, where he studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He was a stel-
lar student and thinker, able to convince his teachers that he was most productive while ly-
ing in bed in the morning, when other students went about doing their chores. Following
college, he spent some apparently wild years in Paris before joining William of Orange's
army. It was during his army stint that a crisis of skepticism overtook him, leading to a new
approach to philosophy, indeed developed as he lay in bed. Descartes took great care to
ensure that his writings were acceptable to the Catholic Church, only to find his works
temporarily banned from Dutch universities by the Protestant clergy of Holland. He died of
pneumonia, contracted as he discussed his new philosophy with Queen Cristina of Swe-
den, who insisted that these conversations with her philosopher-in-residence occur at
5 o'clock in the morning.
These men will be composed, as we are, of a soul and a body; and I must first separately describe for you the body; then, also separately, the soul; and finally I must show you how these two natures would have to be joined and united to constitute men resembling us.
I assume their body to be but a statue, an earthen machine formed intentionally by God to be as much as possible like us. Thus not only does He give it externally the shapes and colors of all the parts of our bodies; He also places inside it all the pieces required to make it walk, eat, breathe, and imitate whichever of our own functions can be imagined to proceed from mere matter and to depend entirely on the arrangement of our organs.
We see clocks, artificial fountains, mills, and similar machines which, though made entirely by man, lack not the power to move, of themselves, in various ways. And I think you will agree that the present machine could have even more sorts of movements than I have imagined and more ingenuity than I have assigned, for our supposition is that it was created by God.
Now I shall not pause to describe to you the bones, nerves, muscles, veins, arteries, stomach, liver, spleen, heart, brain, nor all the other different pieces of which the machine must be composed; for I suppose them all to be quite like the parts of our own body that have the same names. If you do not already know them sufficiently, you can have them shown to you by some learned anatomist, those at least that are large enough to be seen. As for those which because of their smallness are invisible, I shall be able to make them known to you most simply and clearly by speaking of the movements which depend upon them; so that it remains only for me to explain these movements to you here in proper order and by that means to tell you which of the machine's [latent] functions these [patent] movements represent…
As for those parts of the blood that penetrate as far as the brain, they serve not only to nourish and sustain its
From René Descartes, “Selections.” In T. S. Hall (translator), Treatise of Man (pp. 1–5, 19–23, 33–40, 59–90). Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1972. (Original work published 1650)